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Workplace Stress: Identifying the Signs and Causes

Helping staff recognize, address, and alleviate workplace stress

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Most labs experience oscillating workplace stress. The demands on staff rise and fall with the demands on the lab. However, some labs, especially clinical or other patient-serving labs have consistently high levels of stress due to the high sample loads, fast turnaround times, and importance of the results. While some work stress can be beneficial, like striving for new innovation, developing new methods, or researching new aspects of the science, much of it is harmful to staff and the lab’s operations. 

Signs of high workplace stress

Lab managers can learn to recognize the external signs that their teams are experiencing high levels of workplace stress. It is important to get to know your teams, spend time with them to see what they are experiencing, and hear their thoughts about the work. Here are some key things to look for when interacting with lab staff:

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Reduced performance

Clear changes in performance, especially from people with positive performance histories. Look for issues like missed deadlines, unexpected or frequent mistakes, decreased productivity, or more issues on quality review.

Missed work

Workplace stress can impact people’s health. A sudden increase in sick days is a clear indicator. Another thing to watch for is an increase in late arrivals or early departures.

Changes in behavior 

When people spend more of their energy dealing with the stress, they have less energy available to interact positively with teammates. This may manifest as irritability, moodiness, greater sensitivity, withdrawal, and more emotional responses. 

Communication problems

Decreased communication is often an early indicator of high stress levels. This can be observed as lack of participation in meetings and discussions, errors in communication, oversight of sharing important information, and a narrowing of whoindividuals communicate with.

Increased conflict

People lacking coping energy are more likely to say the wrong thing, take offense, and escalate technical debates into interpersonal conflict. All of this can result in more hurt feelings and increased tension across the team.

Physical symptoms 

High stress can induce a variety of physical responses, like headaches, fatigue, and exhaustion. These responses may trigger secondary impacts like changes in diet, weight gain or loss, and other physical attributes.

Decreased engagement

Employee engagement is the key attribute of high performing teams. Lower engagement will look like a loss of enthusiasm for projects, less initiative, lower creativity, distancing from the lab’s purpose, and less response to the lab’s culture and values. 

It is important for lab managers to recognize the symptoms of high workplace stress to be able to mitigate these issues.

Causes of high workplace stress 

There are many causes for high workplace stress in labs. Most of these triggers are around mounting expectations that seem out of the control of the staff. When the symptoms of high stress are observed in the lab, lab managers can look for these levers to address the problems:

High workload 

The most common cause for workplace stress cited by lab managers at the 2024 Lab Manager Leadership Summit was excessive workload. The combination of high sample counts with tight deadlines, and unrealistic expectations causes an enormous amount of stress for labs. 

Lab managers can clarify priorities with key stakeholders and ensure that all staff understand the best application of their time, skills, and talents to deliver the purpose of the lab.

 Unclear expectations

Ambiguous roles, objectives, and goals cause unnecessary stress for staff. This can cause conflicts between team members and wasted time doing activities and projects that are clearly of lower priority.

Lab managers can ensure that everyone has a clear and specific role assignment that shows their primary responsibilities and how they link with their teammates. Lab managers can also ensure that everyone has evergreen SMART goals that enable better decisions about the lab work.

Organizational change

Unexpected, unclear, and unexplained change puts additional stress on staff. This is especially true when that change originates outside the lab. Changes that expect people to change without understanding the benefits are rarely welcomed. 

Lab managers can embrace a clear change management approach that includes communicating a clear vision of the future state and why the change benefits the lab.

Lack of control

Having some control over your work is a key to maintaining motivation. Feeling powerless, lacking autonomy about local decisions, and being micromanaged will all increase workplace stress. 

Lab managers can provide elements of ownership to all lab staff that provides each individual to have some decision-making authority over their work. Ownership can be tailored to the individual and range, from simple tasks to large projects depending on experience and capability.

Poor work-life balance

The inability to build and maintain effective barriers between work and home cause significant stress in the lab. It often seems that the most responsible and most giving members of staff are called on the most when the lab is overwhelmed with work. 

Lab managers can help all staff recognize the need for effective personal barriers and help them construct them. It is important for lab managers to recognize that people’s families are usually their number one priority. Enabling sufficient flexibility for staff to tend to their families’ needs will also allow the work to get done. 

Lack of recognition and reward

Being treated as a pair of hands or a line in a cost spreadsheet feels bad. When staff are treated like the equipment they operate, additional stress accumulates. Staff can achieve great things when their humanity, effort, and expertise are recognized. 

Lab managers can help alleviate stress by actively recognizing people at work. This can be in daily little things like greeting people by name, asking people how they are feeling, and saying thank you regularly. It can also be done in bigger ways by recognizing and rewarding the significant successes that the people in the lab deliver.

Lack of respect

People who don’t feel respected can’t bring their best selves to work, or those who are bullied in any way around the lab feel even more stress than the rest of the staff. 

Lab managers can demand respect for each person on the team. This will look like effective positive communication, enabling each individual to belong, helping each person find their best work friend, and finding equitable solutions to the challenges around the lab.

By building a more positive work environment, lab managers can help to alleviate the stress of the workplace. This involves building trusting relationships, demonstrating leadership, enabling people to grow and develop to deliver on the expectations of the lab’s stakeholders, and actively serving the lab by making effective decisions, defusing and resolving conflict, and demanding respect for every individual.